How to Say No to Promotion

Career Blog

It might seem unthinkable to those who endlessly launch themselves up the corporate ladder, but for many people there are times when accepting a promotion is simply a bad decision. 

Let’s face it, most advancement comes at a cost: longer hours, additional responsibilities, more direct reports, all wrapped in a pressure-cooker of heightened performance expectations. Throw in a relocation or even a new department and it’s wise to think twice before accepting. 

When contemplating a promotion, getting the jitters is natural. But there’s a big difference between nervous anticipation and sheer dread. If your initial reaction is the latter, you need pause and consider the why behind the feeling. 

Sometimes you’re simply presented with the right role at the wrong time. Saying no doesn’t have to derail your career. So take these actions to ensure you’re not sidelined indefinitely.

  1. Consider Your Company’s Culture: In most organizations, professional development and advancement is encouraged, but ultimately optional. Your manager may want a “yes” but will readily accept a rational “no”. Of course if you are in a true “up or out” environment, you might find that saying no causes your professional stock to drop faster than the price of Christmas decorations on December 26th. In those rare cases, it’s best to find a more accommodating culture.
  2. Have a Reason for Declining: If your current role is the ultimate career stop for you, say so. Companies need A Players at all levels and will likely value your continued contributions. That said, there’s a limit to what organizations will pay for a given service. Over time, as even cost-of-living merit increases accumulate, you may price yourself out of job. The best defense against this is optimal performance. When you outshine others in the role, (or better yet, become a mentor and talent developer) and you’ll likely continue to see healthy bonuses even if your base pay stabilizes.
  3. Give a Timeline: Many companies review talent, succession, and development plans at least once per year. If you are declining based on a temporary (perhaps personal) circumstance let people know. For example, you could say, “I’d love to take that assignment in China, but I have to opt out this year due to a personal commitment.” (No need to share more than that.) Just be sure to let them know when you want to rejoin the high potential pool.
  4. Update Your Manager: Chances are he/she gets points for grooming “rock star” players, so explain why you want to remain on the bench. Then be sure to discuss both your career next steps and how you can be helpful to others in the interim.
  5. Embrace Honesty and Performance: Many people stretch the truth on their development profiles. For example, they’ll say they are internationally mobile for fear of being overlooked for opportunities when they are actually locked to a specific state, country, or region. This ever works. Not only do such actions damage your credibility, but they also create additional work for both HR and line management.

If you have a restriction, be it temporary or long-term, own the reality. Then express your affinity for your current role and continue to do great work. When and if your situation changes, you will be taken seriously and presented additional opportunities. There are always political games to be played in the corporate world, but nothing trumps integrity.

  1. Finally, Lose the Guilt: Promotions are hard to come by so don’t kid yourself with feelings of guilt about leaving your employer in the lurch. If you get tapped for one and decline, someone else will be more than happy to fill the spot.

So how often can you say no? 

This depends on the company, but a good rule of thumb is to treat new professional opportunities like you would new social opportunities. Declining the first invitation is understandable. Say no twice and the other party may assume you’re not interested. If you get a third request and opt out again, they’ll save the proverbial postage and look elsewhere.

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